Why I Am Not a Libertarian

The contemporary Tea Party Movement, like its revolutionary ancestor, looks to principles for guidance. Yet an old but active fault line runs just beneath the surface of the movement that has the potential to cause a fatal rupture. Tea Partiers simultaneously promote both a conservatism based upon the principles of the American founding and a libertarianism based on individualism, but the two are ultimately incompatible.

Libertarians are good at explaining why the market works and why government fails, and they have made important policy initiatives in areas such as school choice. On the other hand, they actively oppose laws prohibiting obscenity, protecting unborn children, promoting marriage, limiting immigration, and securing American citizens against terrorists. These positions flow from core principles that have more in common with modern liberalism than with the American founding, and which threaten to erode our constitutional order even further.

The attraction of libertarianism is also its main defect: it offers neat solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately, reality is far more complex than libertarians acknowledge. Only conservatism offers principles adequate to that reality. Consider ten claims libertarians often make:

1. “The Founders of the American political order were libertarian.” Although the American Founders believed in limited government, they were not libertarian. The Constitution was designed for a federal system of government, specifying and limiting national powers and leaving to the states the exercise of their customary powers to protect the health, safety, morals, and welfare of their citizens. None of the American founders challenged these customary state powers, nor did they attempt to repeal them. Even on its own terms, the Constitution provides for powers that many libertarians would object to, such as establishing post offices, granting patents, regulating commerce among the states, and suspending the writ of habeas corpus.

2. “Conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose them.” This claim, made by F.A. Hayek, is simply false as applied to American conservatism (as Hayek himself knew). American conservatism seeks to conserve the principles of justice that lie at the root of the American political order, what might be called Natural Law Liberalism. These principles, enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, are rooted in nature, which fixes the boundaries to all authority. They include “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”; “self-evident” truths such as “all men are Created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”; and a clear statement of the end of government, to “secure” rights and to “effect [the] Safety and Happiness” of the governed.

3. “Only individuals exist, therefore there is no such thing as a ‘common good.’” The statement reflects the corrosive nominalism that Richard Weaver decried inIdeas Have Consequences, and which fatally undercuts the principled limits to coercive authority identified above. Every human association, whether a marriage, business partnership, or sports team, has a common good, or why would it exist?

Common goods are not substantial entities standing over and against individual persons; they are the good of individual persons. But this does not mean common goods are always divisible into individual shares, like a cake. An orchestra, a marriage, an army cannot be divided without being destroyed. Within such associations individual persons exist as bandmates, spouses, and soldiers.

The common good of the political association consists in the ensemble of conditions in which persons and associations can more easily flourish. These are nicely summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “to . . . establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

4. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” The “harm principle,” first formulated by J.S. Mill, is a moral claim. It cannot be derived from moral skepticism without committing a self-referential fallacy: The argument, “We don’t know what is right or wrong, therefore it is wrong to do x,” is obviously invalid.

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Nathan Schlueter is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Hillsdale College. His most recent book is Selfish Libertarians and Socialist Conservatives? The Foundations of the Libertarian Conservative Debate (Stanford University Press).

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  • Slim934

    Not exactly the most accurate catholic exchange piece I’ve ever read. I noticed that Mr. Schlueter never even bothers to precisely define Libertarianism in his reasoning for denying it. For the interested reader who desires a genuine understanding of what Libertarianism is (and why the Tea Party is hardly a genuine libertarian movement) I suggest the following essay. 

    On the notion of Libertarianisms Amorality, see the following essay. 

    As to the notion that Catholicism and Libertarianism are infact mutually exclusive, I point to the numerous essays and books by Catholic Libertarian Thomas Woods. 

    You will notice that he has nearly a dozen essays solely on Catholic Social. The notion that Catholicism and Libertarianism are somehow mutually exclusive appears to me strained at best. It is certainly different from the notion of Political Catholicism which seems to view state coercion as good for the faith, but I have a hard time understanding how using other people’s money to socialize our morality is Catholic at all. Now on to each individual point.

    1.) Although it is true that they were not STRICTLY libertarian, the idea that one could not characterize their thought as generally libertarian seems to me to be rather strained reasoning. The entire point of the Constitution (atleast if one reads further into the proceedings of the various ratifying conventions) was the RESTRICTION of government power, which in and of itself is a fundamentally libertarian concept. Afterall, if one does not have the guns of the state to back up one’s desires then how can he go about fulfilling them? Through voluntary initiative (proselytizing) or through private force (which is much more expensive when one cannot socialize it through the use of government). The fact that they were not consistently libertarian on every issue does not prove they were not libertarian in a general sense. The only thing that this proves is that (like conservatives) their thought was not always internally logically consistent. Which is not surprising, no system of thought is generally perfect especially when it has not had sufficient time to be formally criticized and evaluated (the explication of strict libertarianism did not really even exist before the 20th century afterall).
    2.) This is a rather odd criticism because most variations of modern libertarianism consider themselves the natural outgrowth of the principles of Natural Law. As to the idea that it is the Declaration of Independence is the best explication of these principles, I fail to see why I should limit myself to this document when it is in large extent based off the Natural Law teachings of John Locke. Murray N. Rothbard in fact wrote his book The Ethics of Liberty based almost entirely on the Natural Law foundations of John Locke as well as Thomistic (as in Thomas Aquinas) Philosophy.3.) “Every human association, whether a marriage, business partnership, or sports team, has a common good, or why would it exist?” Perhaps the association is of benefit to the individuals involved? Can this not be the case? Are you saying that people can and should be forced into these associations even if they are bad for the parties involved in them? Libertarianism does not deny that good comes from these associations. The libertarians point is simply that these associations lose any positive force when they are coerced.

    4.) “The “harm principle,” first formulated by J.S. Mill, is a moral claim.” This is incorrect on 2 accounts. The first is implying that Mill was actually a proponent of liberty . Historian Ralph Raico posted an online lecture in his broad History of Liberty where he shows this is clearly does not comport with the facts ( I believe it is lecture 8 here http://mises.org/media/categories/65/History-The-Struggle-for-Liberty).The 2nd point is that Libertarians do not credit Mill with originating this point. The “Non-Aggression Principle” (as it is correctly called) is derived from the concept of individual property rights to one’s own body. Basically they take the concept of Homesteading (John Locke again) and take it to it’s logical conclusion: In the same way people appropriate unused land in the world and take ownership over it through use, one own’s his own body by virtue of being…well….the first owner (the one who inhabits it). Libertarians do not extend this to Moral harm for the precise reason that we cannot claim ownership over the body or soul of the “corrupted party” whoever it might be. To do so would be fundamentally contradictory. If party A reads a “corrupting book”, party B cannot take away the book from party A by simple virtue of party B believing the book is corrupting. This does not mean that Libertarians can not try to voluntarily convince the external party of the immorality of their ways. They simply state that they cannot use force to impose their morality on external parties.5.) “Human beings enter the world utterly dependent, and they require for their security and development the authoritative and sometimes coercive direction of parents, teachers, police, soldiers, and judges.” This confusion is more a result of sloppy language on the part of libertarians (this writer included) than anything else. Libertarians recognize that coercion in some cases can be libertarians. A parent using his natural advantage of ownership of all his kids’ stuff for example to assert authority over the child. This is not inherently unlibertarian. The issue becomes fuzzy in relation to children due to the inherent differences engendered in each individual person. Some children are mentally developed to the extent that they could reasonably be totally self-owning at the age of 12, whereas there are adults who are may never become so dependent. Libertarians generally reject the calls of coercion in this case with conservatives because they rightly point out that the criteria used by most conservatives for when children become owners (usually the age of 18) is completely and totally arbitrary. Libertarians generally concede that they do not have a precise answer for where the point of self-ownership in this respect starts (they acknowledge that it will vary from person to person), but that does not imply that the arbitrary pronouncement of conservatives as to where this point begins is a better or even equivalent metric.
        As to teachers, police, soldiers and judges I see a false equivalence here. Teachers (if Catholics had their way) would be associated with on a voluntary basis so I fail to see how this would be an issue. Police, judges and soldiers on the otherhand are far less tenable. Libertarians do not see any fundamental reason as to why these people should be given coercive powers over them that no one else does. The simple virtue that they are servants to the state is not enough to justify the coercion. Thomas Aquinas himself stated that a coercive state; a state which violates natural law is nothing but a group of bandits writ large. So my question is simple, if a cop or a soldier is violating natural law right infront of you, do you have the duty to obey them? the Libertarian position is “no” for the simple reason that giving them the authority of the state does not make them above natural law. There is nothing mystical about state power which does this.

    6.) “Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character.” I am glad to see you admit the point that virtue requires free choice for it to actually be virtuous. But this idea of law as both expressive and coercive strikes me as fuzzy reasoning. Are you arguing that as long as a law expresses some idea that you find good, it does not matter how coercive it is? There are plenty of great ideas which could be made expressive through legislation, but are obviously unjust on principle in the coercion that they engender. For example, a society could express through law the goodness of people to be knowledgeable of a useful trade and then use impose penalties and jail time if they do not commit themselves to monthly refresher courses in their trade of choice. If the majority votes for this proposal, does that make it right? What exactly makes this more coercive than outright prohibition of certain objects that Catholics find morally objectionable? The fact that you can express a good idea through coercive law does not justify the coercion. moral superiority does supersede and individuals inherent property rights.  “But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism.” Really? Because to me it reads like nothing except pragmatism when principle becomes murky. “Morality under the threat of physical force is great, as long as you can effectively enforce it.” 

    7.) And this is why Libertarians argue that conservatives have no real principles. “Private property is great, as long as it promotes the kind of virtues and associations I agree with.” I’m sorry but this is the exact same line of reasoning used by modern liberals in relation to the free market.  I am constantly amazed that this is not obviously seen as hypocritical behavior. “When the use of private property and market exchanges have spillover effects that adversely effect these other institutions and individuals, they are subject to reasonable limits by law.” Reasonable limits according to who? You have already conceded that this can be effectively any behavior you find objectionable. Who is to say when there is a “harmful spillover” from one policy or another. Any market exchange could be characterized in this way. Afterall, if I choose to buy one persons goods it naturally implies that I am not purchasing another persons goods and if enough people do this then he may go out of business. .This would lead to an increase in unemployment which would have numerous bad spillovers for everyone that business hired. The logical conclusion to this metric is to fully regulate every aspect of life in a society.8) “If people are given the power to coerce in one area, they will eventually coerce in all areas. Libertarians rarely give the cause or reason why this must be true, and conservatives deny that it is true.” ……..is this a joke? This must be a joke, one cannot possibly believe it without intentionally burying one’s head in the sand over the past century of world history. Compare the Federal register in 1912 to the Federal Register in 2012 and tell someone with a straight face that regulation does not beget more regulation. Furthermore, Libertarians have given explanations as to why this must be so. Ludwig von Mises wrote an entire book called ‘Interventionism” detailing why this happens. The entire field of Public Choice economics shows how the structure inherent in government naturally incentivizes increasing regulation of everything. These answers are clear and present to those who wish to look for them. Look at the sorry state of this country and tell me it is due to freedom and NOT to the constant and uninterrupted expansion of the state. As a society we certainly have not become more free over time.

    9) I do not see much of a refutation at all here. The whole point here seems to be to say that “Libertarians are wrong, here is a quote from one of the founders that agrees with me.” Libertarians have never claimed that people have divergent motives. This is a strawman to evade the real issue libertarians are pointing to: the notion that political power within the State structure is naturally corruptive. F.A. Hayek wrote “the Road to Serdom” based largely on this truth. I have never seen a good refutation of his point that in politics ” the worst always rise to the top.” Libertarianism acknowledges this, which is why it works to limit the governments power at every possible turn. They call the conservatives naive because the conservatives actually believe they can create a system of the state (a monopolist of force in a geographical area) that will not degenerate into tyranny. The mere fact that James Madison thought this could be done does not mean that it can.10) The author seems to have degenerated into utilitarianism here. Freedom to author appears to only be good in itself IF it always and everywhere promotes the actions and associations the author approves of. It is not good or right in itself. This strikes me as somewhat contradictory to the whole concept of Natural Law the author seems to hold in esteem earlier. If freedom is necessary for human flourishing (which is what natural law claims) then why are we talking of it here as a mere policy tool? Ultimately, freedom means the right of people to live and work and exchange with each other as they please, for whatever benefit they see. Freedom as a policy tool? Are other people to the author just a means to his virtuous society? Do they have no right to their desires or hopes or dreams if they do not fit with his (or in reality some politician or interest groups’) desires?  The old conservatives did not believe this, to them freedom was not limited whatever a majority said it was limited to.

  • Very poorly written. Slim934 seems to have critiqued it very nicely. Tom Woods is arguably the best apologist for being Catholic and Libertarian.

  • Exomniac

    Your response makes this article look like a joke, Slim. Great read.

  • Tom Woods is no apologist.  He has a clear conscience.

  • Harold Fickett

    Libertarian thought acknowledges only one unit of measure–the sovereign individual.  It’s the opposite side of the socialist coin, with its strictly collectivist mentality.  Both the sovereign individual and the socialist’s classes are false abstractions.  No human person exists in complete independence, nor can their individuality be utterly subsumed into a class.  That’s why as Catholic we need to take fully into account in our political and economic thinking the human person both as an individual and as a member of a community.  The benefits of various forms of association, including the family, clubs, schools, churches, and public associations such as armies, which only exist by virtue of their nature as associations, cannot be judged solely by virtue of the good they do to individuals.  Sometimes these associations demand sacrifices of individuals that are plainly not in the individual’s interest.  Indeed, sometimes the rights of individuals must be limited or foregone entirely for the sake of the community’s greater good.  For this reason Catholic social teaching embraces subsidiarity and its understanding of the human person as an individual who exists within a network of associations.  It acknowledges everywhere the need to balance the individual’s rights with the person’s obligations and responsibilities to others, because we do not exist in isolation from others but only in relationship to others.  We are our brother’s keeper, and our brother is our keeper as well, whether we choose to acknowledge this or not.  Not to acknowledge this is the fundamental mistake of libertarian thinking.  It’s a false absolutism based on a false understanding of the human person. 

  • Derrick

    Here’s another recent article related to the topic at hand, called “Subsidiarity and Libertarian ‘Small Government,'” although it could have easily been titled “Subsidiarity VS. Libertarian ‘Small Government’”: http://distributistreview.com/mag/2012/04/subsidiarity-and-libertarian-small-government/

    Much discussion in the comments there as well.

  • Marcia Sullivan

    With all due respect, Mr. Fickett, libertarianism is the only ideal where we can be our brother’s keeper.  The government tries to sell the idea (although it doesn’t believe it either) that it makes a better keeper than individuals do.  I will stand before God as an individual, and be judged accordingly.  If I give my money to the government to take care of my brother, then I have shirked my responsibility, wasted my money on government rubbish, (including those things that are anti-Catholic…do you think some of our own money has gone to paying for abortions?) and we will have, well…what we have now…a corrupt government and bankruptcy.  Frederic Bastiat said that liberty is an act of faith in God and his His work. 

    In edition to the above, here is another good link to Catholic libertarian thought:  http://youngcatholiclibertarian.wordpress.com/

  • Marcia Sullivan


  • What a lovely collection of rubbish.